Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How Many Museum Employees Does It Take…

Turning the page (1) Turning the page (2) Initial M and Initial N

Above: Two photos during the installation of the exhibition show the process of opening pages; the new opening from the Corbie Psalter now on view in the galleries.

A few days ago we turned the pages in three of the manuscripts on view so that we can show different “openings,” or double-page spreads. If you have a chance to visit the exhibition again, you’ll notice a new set of images for the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, the Prato Haggadah, and the Corbie Psalter. The new opening from the little book of hours for Jeanne d’Evreux includes an image of the Miracle of the Breviary, in which a dove wondrously returns to an imprisoned Saint Louis a prayer book that had been lost in battle. In the Prato Haggadah, we are now showing the pages for the “Dayyeinu” portion of the Passover seder, in which the words of the refrain are set within a Gothic tower. I admit that my favorite new opening is the one that shows the initial M and the initial N from the Corbie Psalter (See a more detailed image of the initial N.) The M of the word Magnificat—formed by the bodies of Elizabeth and Mary—is one of the most inventive depictions of the Visitation I know.

Some visitors have asked why we can’t turn more pages more often. It might seem a simple matter, but turning a page is actually a very involved process. Most lenders of manuscripts require that their own representative be present anytime a case is opened, both to ensure that conditions in the case are not changed and that any page-turning is done to their specifications. In the case of foreign lenders, this creates some logistical problems. In addition, cradles that hold the books open in the galleries are created specifically for each opening. If a new opening dramatically shifts the weight of the book a new cradle must be created.

I find it fascinating that conservators often talk about books as living things—“the page wants to do this,” “it seems comfortable at this spot”—and they strap the pages of the book down very carefully and gently so the book is under no strain. There are different techniques for strapping, but our conservators often use one wide, clear polyethylene strap to hold down the pages behind the one we want to show, and a fine, unobtrusive silk thread to hold down the pages on view. To turn a page, one person holds one side of the book upright and another person holds the other side while the conservator does the strapping and tying. Believe it or not, it took five people and two hours to turn three pages.

—Melanie Holcomb

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Comments (2)

  1. Martin Says:

    Fascinating — Thanks for this insider’s look!
    I’m surprised, though, that the conservator in the pictures appears to be handling the manuscript pages without wearing any kind of gloves. Do skin oils not pose any risks to the parchment?

  2. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Very observant, Martin. You are right–we did not use gloves when we were strapping the books. While there is discussion among manuscripts conservators about whether gloves are needed when consulting a manuscript, most feel that when strapping a book direct touch is essential. It’s important to have a sense of the spring of the page and awareness of any irregularities in the folio. Thus, the overall safety of the book outweighs concerns about the very minor residue left by clean fingers.

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